Two days after a student was gunned down while walking to Anninna Sigmon’s high school in Prince George’s County, she still wasn’t sure when she would feel safe enough to return to class.
“I just feel like I could be next,” said Sigmon, 17, a senior at Central High School in Capitol Heights. “People shouldn’t be afraid to go to school.”
Last week’s death of Marckel Norman Ross, a junior at Central High, has rocked Prince George’s, renewing fears about the sometimes-dangerous walks children who attend school in the county’s inner-Beltway communities have to take to get an education.
Even before classes began, county school officials sent a letter to parents asking that they encourage their children to walk in groups, stay aware of their surroundings and tell an adult if they see anything suspicious. Since Ross’s slaying on Sept. 11, police have ramped up patrols near Central High.
Police have said they have leads in Ross’s killing, but no suspects. Violent incidents involving students heading to and from school remain rare, they said.
“We’ve never had anything like this before,” said Maj. George Nader of the county police department.
Still, the walk that students in parts of the county face, up to two miles for some, forces them to navigate areas that are not always safe. In a two-mile radius around Central High, police said, there have been 84 street robberies, seven homicides and nine rapes so far this year, though they note that most of those crimes occurred at night and did not involve students. In another higher-crime area, a two-mile radius around Suitland High School, police have recorded eight homicides, 13 rapes and 136 citizen robberies in 2012.
Overall, crime in the county is down by 7.6 percent, fueled by a 5.2 percent drop in violent crime and an 8 percent drop in property crime over the same period last year.
But many parents are on edge because Ross is the second Prince George’s high school student killed this school year. Amber Stanley, 17, a senior at Charles H. Flowers High School, was slain in her bedroom at her family’s Kettering home Aug. 22. Police have said they do not think the crimes are linked.
During a back-to-school meeting last week at Central High, police sought to reassure parents, saying they would add patrols during students’ morning and afternoon commutes and will continue to work closely with school security.
The response is similar to those taken in other U.S. cities plagued by violence.
Nearly a decade ago, Camden city and school officials implemented a Safe Corridors/Safe Havens plan for students who walk through crime-ridden areas to get to school. Under the plan, police ramped up patrols and gave out maps designating safe routes to each city school. Havens, such as businesses, firehouses and volunteer homes, were identified along the routes.
Samuel Redd, the executive director of Operation PULSE (People United to Live in a Safe Environment), a faith-based program in East Baltimore, said that area also has a safe-haven program, where churches are open along students’ walk to school. Volunteers offer assistance to children who find themselves in need.
“It’s a safety net for kids as they go to and from school,” Redd said.
In Prince George’s, Troy Graham Sr. said he and his wife drive their son, Troy Jr., to Central High and make arrangements for him to get home. It is not that he ever really thought his son might become a victim of a crime, but, he said, “you never know what might happen.”
Ross’s mother, Elizabeth Ross, has said she worried about her son’s walk and encouraged him to ride with the neighbor who drove her younger children. But the 18-year-old chose to walk, family members said.
Alicia Graham, the mother of a senior at Central High, said last week that she found little solace in police plans.
“They should have already been doing that,” Graham said.
Prince George’s schools spokesman Briant Coleman said if parents are concerned about the safety of an area where their children walk, they can file a report with the school system. Transportation staff and school security, along with the police department, would then make an assessment.
If the area is deemed unsafe, the school system would provide transportation, according to the school system’s policy. Under the policy, buses are provided to students who live outside of a two-mile radius of schools. Some Central High students, who live in other parts of the county, walk from the Metro station.
“I think the [school] board needs to go out and see where these kids are walking,” said Marlo Pointer, whose son attends Central High. “Is it dark? Is it safe? ”
A mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no arrests have been made in the case, said she, too, has had concerns about her son’s safety as he walks to school. Ross’s death added to her anxiety, she said.
“We have to watch our backs until we get in our neighborhoods,” her son said as he headed to school last week.
His friend shook his head in disagreement. “Until I get in my house,” he said.
The son, a senior, said he saw a girl get stabbed on his way to school last year. Since then, he never walks alone.
Nader said last year’s stabbing was not fatal and was not random. Two girls were in an altercation, he said.
The senior said the school does a “good job” of keeping violence to a minimum on campus. It is when they leave school that students have to fend for themselves, he said.